Every time I’m in the centre of London or Oxford, I’m shocked and saddened at the number of people sleeping rough.
According to the charity Homeless Link, last year saw a sharp increase in the numbers of homeless, with over 4,000 people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain. Tragically, as reported by the Guardian, the number of homeless people is set to double by 2041.
I always advocate buying the homeless a meal or a hot drink, especially as so few of us actually carry cash these days, and the challenges of life can be more easily tackled on a full stomach.
We all know the importance of a nutritious, balanced diet. It’s heartening to see the boom in the number of charitable organisations, as well as supermarkets and eateries, that focus on feeding vulnerable, desolate and isolated people. Organisations such as UKHarvest (UK branch of OzHarvest) and Food Cycle exemplify the healing potential of food. Going beyond the standard approach - like delivering unsold sandwiches or handing out our overripe bananas - these initiatives create a place of shelter, warmth and comfort by serving up wholesome meals created by volunteers from donated food.
UKHarvest pride themselves on providing healthy and nutritious meals to the needy from food donations, rather than just serving up endless pasta with a side of bread and butter pudding. Food Cycle is unique in its drive to cater not only to the homeless but those who may be lonely, to combat social isolation.
Many celebrities have spotlighted the issue of homelessness, including the visionary chef Massimo Bottura. I first heard of Bottura and his Michelin Stars from the rave reviews of my serious foodie friends of his restaurant - Osteria Francescana - in Modena, Italy.
He extends his passion for food to minimising food waste: His brainchild is the Food For Soul non-profit organisation, which ‘fights against food waste in support of social inclusion and individual well-being.’
Food for Soul’s first project was Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan during the 2015 Expo, and went on to launch similar initiatives in places such as Brazil during the Rio Olympics (Refettorio Gastromotiva). What unites each project is its goal of using surplus food and working with the local community to create a dining experience where they serve meals to those who are homeless or vulnerable. And Massimo’s latest triumph is Refettorio Felix – in collaboration with the Felix Project – at St Cuthbert’s in Earl’s Court, London. As he says: ‘The gesture of sitting down to a meal and breaking bread together is the first step toward rebuilding dignity and creating community.’
Some months ago I was lucky enough to volunteer with Food Cycle’s Marylebone team and experienced at first hand the truly uniting power of food. Likewise, when I visited Refrettorio Felix a few weeks ago, I was bowled over not only by the beautiful design of the dining-room but also its warm, restorative atmosphere, its inclusive ethos and the delicious food. It couldn’t be further from a soup kitchen.
It made me realise that the human connections that can be forged through the sharing of a meal over a communal table, and the nurturing and healing power this can generate, are far more valuable than any spare change.
All images © Stephen Owen